There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.
I thought I had put up a post about this song, earlier in the year. But I can’t find it so I’ll put this one up. I first heard the song in the mid-1970s from the a capella singing of Kevin Baker, the composer of The Snowy River Men. As a document of what so many people had to endure in the Great Depression, this has few equals. Duke Tritton wrote this from first hand experience as he was one of the blasters on the Sandy Hollow Line, an initiative of the Australian government to give work to men who had no means to support their families. It began as an unemployment relief scheme of the NSW Government, achieving infamy for having no modern mechanical devices used on it, other than trucks carrying concrete for the 5 tunnels and bridge piers, all other work being done with picks, shovels, hand drills, horses and carts. Construction continued through World War 2 at a desultory pace, held up by money, labour and especially steel shortages, only to be abandoned unfinished, approximately 92% complete, a few years later in 1951. (source, Wikipedia).Well, well, isn’t it good to see that the stupidity of government initiatives have survived the 20th century and are still alive and kicking in modern Australia? I wonder, are there echoes of this in the present pandemic? I give the lyrics below because it is a primary document of the suffering of those who worked on this scheme. It is also a primer on how to write long-form lyrics that punch through from beginning to end. It comprises 10 quatrains rhyming aabb with a concluding couplet. I know I had indicated in an earlier post that, as a rule, I did not publish lyrics on the grounds that if they were not comprehensible on listening, then they were not worth setting down. Here, though, is another exception that proves the rule.
The sun was blazing in the sky and waves of shimmering heat/Glared down on the railway cutting, we were half dead on our feet,/And the ganger stood on the bank of the cut and snarled at the men below,/’You’d better keep them shovels full or all of you cows will go.”// I never saw such a useless mob, You’d make a feller sick./As shovel men you’re hopeless and you’re no good with the pick.’/There were men in the gang who could belt him with a hand tied at their back/But he had the power behind him and we daren’t risk the sack.// So we took his insults in silence, for this was the period when/We lived in the great depression and nothing was cheaper than men,/And we drove the shovels and swung the picks and cursed the choking dust;/We’d wives and hungry kids to feed, so toil in the heat we must,//And as the sun rose higher the heat grew more intense,/The flies were in their millions, the air was thick and dense./We found it very hard to breathe, our lungs were hot and tight/With the stink of sweating horses and the fumes of gelignite.//But still the ganger drove us on, we couldn’t take much more,/We prayed for the day we’d get a chance to even up the score./A man collapsed in the heat and dust, he was carried away to the side;/It didn’t seem to matter a damn if the poor chap lived or died.// ‘He’s only a loafer’, the ganger said, ‘A lazy useless cow./I was going to sack him anyway, he’s saved me the trouble now.’/He had no thoughts of the hungry kids, no thought of a woman’s tears/As she struggled and fought to feed her brood all down the weary years.//But one of the Government horses fell down and died in the dray;/They hitched two horses to him and dragged his corpse away./The ganger was a worried man and he said with a heavy sigh,/’It’s a bloody terrible thing to see a good horse die.’//You chaps get back to your work, don’t stand loafing there./Get in and trim the batter down, I’ll get the engineer.’/The engineer came and looked around and said as he scratched his head,/’No horse could work in this dreadful heat or all of them will be dead.’//’They’re much too valuable to lose, they cost us quite a lot,/And I think it’s a wicked shame to work then while it’s hot./So we will take them to the creek and spell then in the shade./You men must all knock off at once. Of course you’ll not be paid.’//And so we plodded to our camps and it seemed to our weary brains/We were no better than convicts, though we didn’t wear the chains./And in those drear depression days we were unwanted men,/But we knew that when a war broke out we’d all be heroes then.//And we’d be handed a rifle and forced to fight for the swine/Who tortured us and starved us on the Sandy Hollow Line.///
Another Aussie folk legend, John Dengate, set Duke Tritton’s words to music (I think, derived from an Irish air). Both men typify, for me, several admirable Australian character traits- fairness, humour, grit and determination under duress, summed up by these lines from John Dengate: We won’t surrender, won’t give in, although our hair is graying;/We come from tough rebellious kin…/Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win…We go on disobeying.
I have only sung this song once at The Penrith Gaels, about nine months ago. At that time, the feedback I got from most of the punters was along the lines of- It was a bit dirgy- stick to the faster stuff. I wonder, after we emerge, blinking into the new normal of the post-pandemic era, if there will be as much feedback along the “dirgy” line? Or if there will be such a thing as an audience?
This lockdown version features the Band-in-a-Box/RealBand combo of acoustic piano, strummed and fingerpicked guitars featuring Jason Roller, bass and Nashville drums as the rhythm section and fiddle, harmonica and synth electro flutes as embellishment, with n-Track 9 mastering.